Baggage guards for Air New Zealand have been charged with helping drug smugglers smuggle 20kg of methamphetamine through border security checks. Photo / Brett Phibbs
EXCLUSIVE: The red flag was raised when the 25-year-old rapper from Auckland flew to the United States shortly after New Zealand emerged from level 4 lockdown and returned just five days later. Customs officer found
20 kg of crystal methamphetamine in a suitcase allegedly belonging to him. However, investigations into how the drugs managed to get past border controls revealed what Customs alleged was a corrupt Air NZ baggage handling crew. Jared Savage Report.
An Air New Zealand baggage handler has been arrested for allegedly helping someone circumvent border security checks and smuggling drugs into the country during the Covid lockdown.
Four men who work at Auckland International Airport are jointly accused with local rap musicians of importing $ 8 million worth of methamphetamine in May.
If convicted, the offense carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
In what is believed to be the country’s first known prosecution, a Customs investigation will accuse Air New Zealand staff of engaging in a drug-smuggling tactic that has been described overseas as a “rip on, rip off”.
For this method to work, the importer of drugs needs a man or woman “in” on either end of the flight.
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To avoid X-ray machines and other security measures, baggage attendants must secretly load the medicine bag on board among other checked baggage.
Or unsuspecting travelers get an extra bag tagged with their baggage allowance. After all, this is a “rip on”.
Once the plane lands at its destination, other baggage staff on the runway remove the drug-laden baggage before it can be checked. This is a “rip off”.
In the case currently being tried in Manukau District Court, four Air New Zealand baggage handlers were arrested after $ 8 million worth of methamphetamine was found at Auckland International Airport.
The red flag was raised when a 25-year-old man traveled to the United States on May 2, 2020 – when New Zealand was under Covid level 3 lockdown restrictions – and returned from Los Angeles five days later.
Suspicious of his travels given the global pandemic, Customs officials searched his black carry-on and found 20 kg of crystal meth.
Romney Fuki Fukofuka, 25, was charged with possessing Class A drugs to supply and import Class A drugs. The Mangere resident registered his job as a musician and rapper under the stage name Konecs.
Court documents reveal that Fukofuka was also charged with conspiracy to import methamphetamine between March and his arrest on May 7.
The alleged breach specifically relates to five packages terminated by the United States Customs Border Protection agency, which hid a total of 15 kg of methamphetamine.
Fukofuka was arrested along with Sese Vimahi, a 44-year-old baggage handler, and charged with importing 20kg of crystal methamphetamine found at the airport on May 7.
Customs continued to investigate and one week later, three Air New Zealand loaders were jointly charged with the same offense: Daniel John Ah Hong, 26, Mark Anthony Castillo, 23, and George Aloha Taukolo, 29.
The fifth man with temporary name suppression was also accused of importing Class A drugs.
All pleaded not guilty to the charges and will appear again at the Manukau District Court next month.
None of the baggage handlers have worked since Air New Zealand became aware of the allegations, said the airline’s head of operational integrity and safety officer, Captain David Morgan.
At the end of October, all but one baggage handler will no longer be employed by Air New Zealand.
The remaining person guarantee terms don’t allow them to contact Air New Zealand, Morgan said.
“Air New Zealand has a strict Code of Conduct. We take these kinds of allegations very seriously and have zero tolerance for any behavior that is found to violate our Code of Conduct.”
Morgan said Air New Zealand employees are encouraged to call a confidential “Speak Up” line, which operates 24/7, to report any behavior that is suspected of being inappropriate, unethical or illegal.
Because the matter is in court, Customs investigations manager Bruce Berry is unable to discuss the specifics of the investigation or arrest.
But speaking broadly of the “insider threat”, Berry said organized crime relies on subverting people and processes to smuggle illegal goods across borders.
“Whether it’s passenger or cargo, organized crime is very agile and is always looking for ways to exploit gaps in the armor,” Berry said.
“Internationally, the insider threat has existed during the trading post. But because New Zealand is such an attractive market now, we are starting to see sophisticated criminal techniques being applied here.”
The Air New Zealand baggage handling prosecution came soon after the Herald on Sunday revealed a supervisor at Auckland Harbor was helping to divert suspicious containers from the dock in the middle of the night.
In a scene reminiscent of the popular television crime series The Wire, containers are loaded into the back of a truck at the port at 1 a.m., as soon as they are marked for inspection by Customs.
The container is said to have contained 24 air compressors from Thailand and Customs wanted to take a closer look at the contents, as the company that imported the goods was founded by members of a Mongol motorcycle gang who had recently been deported from Australia.
Police and Customs believe large quantities of drugs are hidden inside and detectives from the National Organized Crime Group are still investigating the “suspicious circumstances” in which the containers were taken.
New Zealand has a reputation for being one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
But according to Berry, the arrest of a port supervisor and the recent prosecution of a police officer for leaking sensitive information to a gang suggests law enforcement and the industry cannot be complacent about the threat posed by organized crime.
“This type of corruption is unheard of internationally, but New Zealand has been isolated from it for a long time.”